Kids on the March

15 Stories of Speaking Out, Protesting, and Fighting for Justice


By Michael Long

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From the March on Washington to March for Our Lives to Black Lives Matter, the powerful stories of kid-led protest in America. 
Kids have always been activists. They have even launched movements. Long before they could vote, kids have spoken up, walked out, gone on strike, and marched for racial justice, climate protection, gun control, world peace, and more.  
Kids on the March tells the stories of these protests, from the March of the Mill Children, who walked out of factories in 1903 for a shorter work week, to 1951’s Strike for a Better School, which helped build the case for Brown v. Board of Education, to the twenty-first century’s most iconic movements, including March for Our Lives, the Climate Strike, and the recent Black Lives Matter protests reshaping our nation. 
Powerfully told and inspiring, Kids on the March shows how standing up, speaking out, and marching for what you believe in can advance the causes of justice, and that no one is too small or too young to make a difference. 


Part One

The Twentieth Century

Chapter One

The March of the Mill Children

we only ask for justice
we want to go to school
more time to eat our meals

These were just three of the messages that children, some as young as ten years old, carried on banners as they silently marched through the streets of Philadelphia on June 17, 1903. They were protesting the unsafe working conditions in factories that produced yarns, threads, and fabrics. They were also demanding a workweek of fifty-five rather than sixty hours, even if it meant cutting their already low wages.

Textile factories were dangerous places. The dusty air was filled with tiny silk threads that caused the children who worked there to cough and wheeze. The piercing sounds of the whirring machines also damaged their hearing. If they accidentally touched the machines in the wrong place, they lost fingers and even hands.

The workweek felt like forever. Children in textile factories labored at least ten hours a day for six days a week. Meanwhile, kids from families with more money went to school, played at recess, and enjoyed lunches and long breaks. By the end of each day, the factory children were exhausted and hungry. Their tired and worn bodies began to bend toward the ground.

The children's silent march was a way to help the general public, and especially political leaders, understand the horrible circumstances of their working lives.

As the young workers marched away from Independence Hall, where our nation's Founding Fathers had adopted the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, they carried small American flags, symbols of a nation that praised freedom and justice for all. They ended their patriotic march at City Hall, in the center of downtown, where a large crowd of supporters had gathered to hear a famous speaker known as Mother Jones.

Mary Harris—that was the real name of Mother Jones—traveled the country, delivering fiery speeches and helping to organize coal miners and railroad and factory workers. She received her nickname from the grateful union members. Jones's passion for justice was motivated by the tragedies that marked her life. Her husband, George, and four children all died in 1867 during an epidemic of yellow fever. "All around my house I could hear weeping and the cries of delirium," she said years later. "All day long, all night long, I heard the grating of the wheels of the death cart," a horse-drawn carriage that carried victims of the fever. She also noticed that most of the people suffering from the fever were from poor households. "The rich and the well-to-do fled the city."

Child laborers at a textile mill in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1912.

After that, Jones moved to Chicago, where she opened a dressmaking business frequented by wealthy women and their families. It pained her to see all the impoverished people outside her shop. "I would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking along the frozen lake front," she said. Jones experienced yet another tragedy when the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed her business and everything she owned. With nothing left, she joined the ranks of the poor and destitute. But rather than despairing, she became active in the labor movement and its efforts to help everyday workers improve their living and working conditions.

Mother Jones and spectators before the start of the March of the Mill Children in Philadelphia.

It was Mother Jones who planned the march from Independence Hall to City Hall in 1903. She had arrived in Philadelphia just a few months earlier to help coordinate a strike. About one hundred thousand textile workers were demanding a reduction of hours in their workweek. Soon after arriving, she was shocked to learn that about sixteen thousand of the strikers were children from poor families.

These children worked in the factories because their families couldn't afford food and shelter without that money. Pennsylvania laws prohibited children under the age of thirteen from working, but some parents were so desperate that they lied about their kids' ages.

Mother Jones was surprised not only by the number of child workers but also by their appearance. As she recalled, "Every day little children came into union headquarters, some with their hands off, some with the thumb missing, some with their fingers off at the knuckle. They were stooped little things, round shouldered and skinny."

Deeply affected by the suffering, Jones organized the silent march of the children and agreed to speak at the rally at City Hall. The crowd cheered as she climbed atop a table on the steps of the majestic government building. Two small boys joined her, and she gently touched their heads as she began to speak. "One of these boys has had his tongue taken out by the machinery; the other has had his hand almost severed in the mills." It was time for the city to admit that its mansions "were built on the broken bones, the quivering hearts and drooping heads of these children."

The march did not accomplish a reduction in work hours, and Mother Jones thought about next steps that she and the children might take to advance their cause. Then she read that the Liberty Bell was being taken on a tour across the country, and she had an idea. Mother Jones proposed that she and the children go on a tour to draw the nation's attention to the injustices of child labor.

She asked the parents of working children if they would allow their sons and daughters to join her for a march from Philadelphia to New York City, which was home to many bankers and factory owners. These wealthy businesspeople could influence politicians to pass laws that would improve the children's lives. The ninety-two-mile march would last about ten days, and she promised to take care of the children and keep them safe. Many of the parents agreed, and some even joined the protest.

On July 7, 1903, Mother Jones led her "textile army," with about 50 children and 150 adults, on the first leg of the march. The children carried knapsacks that each held a tin cup, a plate, and a fork and a knife, and they hoisted banners that read, we want time to play and we want time to go to school. Some children were dressed as Revolutionary War soldiers, and several boys played fifes and drums in the textile army's colorful band.

The march gave the kids a welcome break from their hard labor.

The children were eager to go—for many, it would be their first journey from home—but the march would be far from easy. When it was not blistering hot, it was pouring rain. Torrential downpours soaked the tents that the marchers slept in at night. Making things worse, mosquitoes attacked them after the rains stopped. The itching was unbearable. "From time to time we had to send some of the children back to their homes," Mother Jones recalled. "They were too weak to stand the march."

Another occasional problem was a lack of food. Mother Jones had hoped that farmers would feed the marchers as they passed by, but in these tough times, there were only a few who were able or willing to do so. After the supplies the marchers brought with them ran out, there was simply not enough food to satisfy all the grumbling stomachs. Mother Jones pleaded for food from grocers and union members, and the kids ate whatever was available; one time, they had ice cream and coffee for breakfast.

President Theodore Roosevelt, left, and Vice President Charles Warren Fairbanks

Still another problem was a lack of money. Everyday working people had little money to share with the marchers, and many who were wealthy refused to support their cause. Mother Jones did not even have enough money to pay the toll for the marchers to cross the Delaware Bridge. That problem was settled when a supporter stepped forward to help, but more than one hundred marchers dropped out of the protest by the end of the third day.

Things were looking bleak, morale was low, and success seemed impossible. Still the protesters who were strong enough to continue remained determined to draw the nation's attention to their cause. They marched on.

Things got better. Local labor unions and hotel managers started offering food, shelter, and money. Some of the donations came from people who had read about the march in the newspaper. This is what Mother Jones had counted on.

On good days, the children jumped into nearby rivers for a bath and a quick cooldown. Laughter and giggles filled the air as they splashed one another before heading back to the hot roads. On bad days, factory owners tried to prevent the young marchers from entering their towns. None of them succeeded.

On July 15, Mother Jones announced a dramatic change in plans—the boys and girls would now march to President Theodore Roosevelt's summer house in Oyster Bay, New York. At the same time she publicized a letter that she had written to the president, seeking his help:

We ask you, Mr. President, if our commercial greatness has not cost us too much by being built upon the quivering hearts of helpless children? We who know of these sufferings have taken up their cause and are now marching toward you in the hope that your tender heart will counsel with us to abolish this crime.

President Roosevelt did not reply to her letter, and his assistant said that the president would not meet with Mother Jones and the children.

Meanwhile, support for the marchers grew—but the weather took a turn for the worse. When the marchers arrived at Princeton, New Jersey, they were greeted with fierce winds and a driving rain. Weather conditions were so frightful that the caretaker of former President Grover Cleveland's home invited the marchers to sleep in the president's barn. The proprietor of the Nassau Inn on the Princeton square provided the marchers with their evening meal.

The following morning, Mother Jones spoke to a crowd that included professors from Princeton University. While delivering her speech, she pointed to James Ashworth, a ten-year-old marcher whose shoulders were stooped from carrying bundles of yarn that weighed seventy-­five pounds. Mother Jones said that while the children of Princeton were studying in comfortable schools, James was earning barely three dollars a week working ten hours a day in a carpet factory.

"That night," Mother Jones recalled, "we camped on the banks of Stony Brook, where years and years before, the ragged Revolutionary Army camped, Washington's brave soldiers that made their fight for freedom."

In New York City, the children were amazed at the sight of the massive skyscrapers. As they had done in other towns, they formed a parade to announce their arrival. The band led the way, and then came the children with picket signs. Local child workers also jumped into the procession.

On Twentieth Street, Mother Jones gave another speech, this time to about two thousand people. After her speech, the child marchers held an American flag at its corners to catch coins tossed by supporters. By the end of the collection, the flag looked like a big bag full of money.

Many people volunteered to open their homes and food pantries to the marchers. The children were happy with the growing support, and their smiles grew even bigger the following day when they visited Coney Island. This seaside amusement park offered carnival rides and a wild animal show featuring lions, tigers, elephants, and monkeys. Some of the children said that they wished they could stay with the show rather than return to Philadelphia.

Mother Jones usually marched in an antique black dress with a high lace collar.

But the day turned serious when Mother Jones gave a speech at the zoo. She found some empty cages and instructed a few children to go inside them to show the crowds of people how in the textile factories, the children's lives were like those of caged animals. "We want President Roosevelt to hear the wail of the children who never have a chance to go to school," she said.

President Roosevelt said nothing about the marching children, and his personal secretary warned that the group would not be welcome in Oyster Bay. But Mother Jones and her textile army, which now numbered only two dozen or so, marched on.

On July 28, Mother Jones, three children, and a few adults quietly approached the president's summer home. The president's personal secretary did meet with them, but he quickly turned them away, saying the president was not available.

For three long weeks, the children had marched miles after miles and endured awful hardships. Now, it all seemed so worthless. The president had ignored them.

Hurt and humiliated, the children boarded a train for the trip home. Mother Jones did her best to comfort them. She told them that the march brought their difficult lives to the nation's attention. She said she would write another letter to the president. She declared they would organize a bigger, better march, this one in Washington, DC.

The proposed march never happened. Mother Jones moved on to other strikes in other parts of the country. Back in Philadelphia, the owners of the textile factories crushed the strikes. The children and their families went back to work under the same conditions and for the same number of hours.

The child marchers of 1903 did not succeed in the short term, but two years later, Pennsylvania raised the minimum work age from thirteen to fourteen. While it might sound like a small victory, the new law made it possible for thousands of younger children to go to school and play at recess—kids who otherwise would have been toiling in the mills, some of them the younger siblings of those who had marched.


The Bonus March

Nobody would have guessed it from looking at their scrawny bodies, but at the tender age of seven, Nick and Joe Oliver were veteran boxers. By 1932, the twin brothers had already been boxing for about two years.

Their father, Anthony, managed their careers in the family's hometown of Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania, about thirty-five miles southeast of Pittsburgh. But truth be told, their careers didn't require a whole lot of managing.

Anthony usually set up makeshift boxing rings throughout the Belle Vernon area, and small crowds of people would show up for the odd spectacle of two small brothers pummeling each other for three rounds. The boys really boxed, too; they didn't fake it. But they didn't hurt each other, either.

Spectators loved watching the twins and showered them with cheers and applause. After the final bell rang, Anthony always announced that both boys had won. The match was a draw. It was always a draw, even though each brother thought for sure that he was better than the other.

The Olivers didn't do all this just for fun. They did it for cash. At the end of each match, Anthony took up a collection from the crowd. It was an honest way for the Olivers to earn some extra money—Nick and Joe had six other siblings—during a time of harsh poverty.

In the 1930s, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. Many workers had lost their jobs, their incomes, and their ability to provide for themselves and their families.

Poverty-stricken workers also lost their homes. In 1932, far more than a million people, including two hundred thousand boys and girls, were homeless. Many of them ended up living in poorly built shacks in impoverished communities they called Hoovervilles. That was their way of blaming President Herbert Hoover for not doing enough to help them secure employment.

Military veterans were especially angry at the president. They were upset not only about the lack of jobs, but also about the government's refusal to pay them for having served in World War I.

Nine years earlier, Congress had agreed to pass a bill granting war veterans either $1.00 per day for domestic service (serving in the United States) or $1.25 per day for serving overseas. The bill also said that if a veteran's calculated payment was less than fifty dollars, the government must pay him immediately, but those who earned more than that would not receive their money until 1945.

The Oliver twins boxing to raise money at a Bonus Army camp.

Many veterans needed the money immediately, in 1932, not in thirteen years. Nick and Joe's father was among those veterans. He had served in an army tank battalion during the war, and like other veterans, he was in urgent need of money. Although the Oliver family, all ten of them, had a place to call home, they struggled to make ends meet on a daily basis.

Across the country, in Portland, Oregon, former army sergeant Walter W. Waters had a bold idea. On March 15, 1932, while speaking at a meeting of disgruntled veterans, Waters asked the group to join him in traveling to the US Capitol and demanding immediate cash payment of the money.

The veterans weren't enthusiastic about the idea, but they changed their minds two months later, when the US House of Representatives chose not to pass a bill that would have allowed for immediate payment of the cash due them. Opponents of the bill called the money a "bonus," extra payment for what should have been freely given patriotic service.

On May 11, the day of the House's decision, Waters and about three hundred veterans headed to the local train yards to begin the journey to Washington, DC, almost three thousand miles away. Leading the way was a banner that read, portland bonus march—on to washington. The veterans had thirty dollars among them, not enough even to buy food for the trip, let alone train tickets.

The following day, they hopped aboard freight cars made available by railroad workers who supported their cause. The cars smelled of fresh cow manure, but the members of the Bonus Expeditionary Force—the protesting veterans named themselves after the troops sent overseas in World War I—were happy for the ride.

The Bonus Army received additional support along the way. Newspapers publicized the trip, railroad workers made space on their cars, and cheering supporters offered food. Some governors also provided trucks to move the Bonus Army through their states as quickly as possible.

Another remarkable thing happened: thousands of other jobless veterans also decided to head to the nation's capital. From all across the country, they hitchhiked, hopped on trains, and formed convoys of dilapidated cars and trucks.

Nick and Joe's father, Anthony Oliver, was a member of American Legion, a group of World War I veterans who gathered together socially and for the benefit of helping one another. His chapter, Post 669, supported the immediate payment of the bonus and asked Anthony and his friend Sam Ditz to travel to Washington, DC, and represent the post in the Bonus Army. Anthony and Ditz agreed to go.

The first group of Bonus marchers arrived in Washington, DC, on May 23. By the time the Portland crew got there six days later, there were several hundred veterans waiting to greet them with cheers, handshakes, and backslaps.

Neighborhood kids, upper left, watching a Bonus Army march.

Evalyn Walsh McClean, who owned the world's most famous jewels, including the Hope Diamond, was at home on Massachusetts Avenue when Bonus Army trucks rumbled into the city. She was so moved at seeing the poor veterans that she went to a local diner and ordered one thousand sandwiches for them.

DC Chief of Police Pelham D. Glassford supplied them with hot coffee. Glassford had also served in World War I, and he wanted to support the veterans while also keeping order and maintaining safety. He even helped set up camps where the Bonus Army would live.

Before long, more than fifteen thousand veterans and their families, including young children—and the Olivers—had streamed into the nation's capital.

Nick, Joe, Anthony, and Ditz left for Washington at the end of the school year. One day in May, right around dawn, the twins followed their father out the door and climbed into his Model A Ford. Anthony started the engine with a crank, and off they all went.

Nick and Joe had no idea what the bonus was all about. Nor did they understand the Bonus Army. But they were really excited to be heading to the nation's capital; they'd never been there before.

The trip to Washington was 250 miles long. Along the way, the Oliver boys picnicked on potatoes, salami, and bread. Anthony knew that the food would not last long, and he occasionally pulled to the side of the road so that the twins could jump out and grab some apples and berries.

"I remember when we saw the Capitol," Joe recalled years later. "My eyes popped out."

The Olivers joined the veterans and their families as they got settled. With help from Chief Glassford, some of the veterans set up living quarters in abandoned buildings on government property. Others pitched tents in public parks. Most built makeshift shacks in an area called Anacostia Flats. Veterans and their families used whatever they could find to build their shacks—bedsprings, hubcaps, tin cans, fence stakes, car seats, even egg cartons.

The Oliver twins slept in their father's car for the first few nights. After that, they slept in a lean-to made of thick cardboard in the area of Anacostia they called Camp Marks. This campground was on the other side of the Anacostia River from downtown Washington. A wooden drawbridge connected the two areas.

About 15,000 people—including 1,100 women and children—lived in the camp, and they made it as comfortable as possible. At its peak, the camp had its own dining facilities, a post office, a library, a barbershop, a doctor's office, and a school. Unlike the US Army and Washington, DC, Camp Marks was not racially segregated. People of all ethnicities lived, worked, and played together.

During the day, many of the men left camp to find work that usually paid them about two dollars per day. That is what Anthony did, and while he was at work, Nick and Joe roamed around the camp, played along the river, or helped out with small jobs here and there.

The Oliver twins also regularly boxed for the Bonus marchers. Anthony made a ring, the boys went three rounds, and the Bonus veterans tossed coins into a passing hat. According to Nick, the boys once "got one dollar and thirty-seven cents in dimes, nickels, and pennies," equivalent to more than twenty-four dollars in 2020.

On June 7, more than five thousand veterans and their families assembled at the Washington Monument for their first major protest. Beginning at 7:00 p.m., they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol.

At the head of the march were banners calling for immediate payment of the bonus. Then came a large group of veterans who had won medals for bravery in World War I. Following these war heroes were six regiments and their families, all marching in line. A group of trucks carried men with disabilities, highlighting those who had been wounded in service to their country. Their injuries made it even harder, if not impossible, for them to land the jobs they so desperately needed.

Bonus Army families took shelter in tents, sheds, and shacks.

The former soldiers were clean-shaven and well kempt, but their poverty was unmistakable. Some wore tattered uniforms from their days in the army, and others had shirts that were frayed and badly wrinkled. Their hats and shoes were plagued with holes, and elbow patches were aplenty. The women and children also looked down-and-out.

Although the march included a small drum corps, the veterans walked in silence to demonstrate the seriousness of their needs. To some of the one hundred thousand spectators, the former soldiers and their families seemed sad and hopeless. No one cheered.


  • "Readers will be inspired by the advocacy, leadership, and determination of the young change agents. The stories are accompanied by photos and primary source documents, breathing life into the subjects and showing a clear connecting thread between young people of different generations."
    Kirkus Reviews

    “As Long gives background information on each protest, he makes the accounts engaging with a storylike narrative filled with quotes from some of the young protestors. Plenty of period photos help readers imagine the events. … Both historical and timely.”
    “Calling all young revolutionaries and historians! This book is for you.”
    Youth Services Book Review
  • "Readers will be inspired by the advocacy, leadership, and determination of the young change agents. The stories are accompanied by photos and primary source documents, breathing life into the subjects and showing a clear connecting thread between young people of different generations."
    Kirkus Reviews

    “As Long gives background information on each protest, he makes the accounts engaging with a storylike narrative filled with quotes from some of the young protestors. Plenty of period photos help readers imagine the events. … Both historical and timely.”
    “Calling all young revolutionaries and historians! This book is for you.”
    Youth Services Book Review

On Sale
Mar 23, 2021
Page Count
304 pages

Michael Long

About the Author

Michael G. Long is the author and editor of many books on civil rights, peaceful protest, and politics. Kids on the March is his first book for younger readers.

Learn more about this author